Will this historic downtown recover? (photoessay)

As I often write, cities and regions need strong cores in order to be sustainable.  If all the action is on the fringe, you can find your community in danger of becoming the next Detroit, shrinking in the middle but relatively stable on the outskirts.  (In the last decade, the central city of Detroit lost a staggering 25 percent of its population; yet the Detroit metro region as a whole lost only 3.5 percent.)  Goodbye to walkability, identity and vitality, hello to more sprawling land consumption, decay and driving long distances to get anything done.

Lynchburg, Virginia isn’t Detroit, by a long shot.  It is smaller and much more scenic and pleasant.  But its downtown, mostly intact architecturally, isn’t as strong as it needs to be to support sustainable living.  Not yet, anyway.

Last week, I had the honor of addressing a meeting in Lynchburg, staying in a quite lovely downtown hotel fashioned out of an old shoe factory, up the hill from the James River waterfront.  On my first day there, I went for a stroll around 7 o’clock or so on a beautiful, still-sunlit early evening, exploring the place for the first time.  I was struck by two observations:

  • Downtown Lynchburg has not just good but great historic architecture, terrific “bones” to support a vital place.
  • But there were no people anywhere to be seen.  It felt a little like an elaborate movie set, after filming for the day had finished.  Some buildings were vacant and deteriorating significantly.